Director: Lone Scherfig
Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy, Jack Huston, Paul Ritter, Richard E. Grant, Jeremy Irons
We all know that Hollywood loves to make films about itself, and then shower these films with awards in a self-congratulating exercise of narcissism and ego. So, it’s refreshing to see a British take on its own film industry, at a particularly interesting point in its history. We are talking World War Two – when entertainment had to do several things at once. It needed to provide an escape to the horrors, of course, but it also had to put the right ‘spin’ on things and became an instrument for propaganda. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – one of my favourite films of all time – Powell and Pressburger’s ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ was one such film. In an effort to foster favourable US-UK relations, it has an American radio operator fall in love with a British pilot. ‘Their Finest’ focuses on a similar film – a team is assembled by the Ministry for Information to make inspiring films, based on real wartime events happening around them. Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) is specifically hired to write the ‘slop’ – the female dialogue. She stumbles upon a pair of twin sisters who took it upon themselves to steal their father’s fishing boat and try to take it to Dunkirk – to assist in the effort of evacuating the hundreds of thousands of men stranded there. The fact that they never made it, need not get in the way of a good story. Mrs Cole is teamed up with Tom Buckley (Sam Clafin) and Raymond Parfitt (Paul Ritter) to weave the story into something dramatic and exciting – and don’t forget a bit with a dog.
Bill Nighy plays Ambrose Hilliard – an actor past his prime, who believes he will be given the heroic soldier role, but ends up playing the comic foil – Uncle Frank. It is decided that (as with ‘A Matter of Life and Death’), an American character is needed, just at the turning point of whether the US will be entering the war or not. So a real life all-American hero is found – Carl Lundbeck (Jack Lacy – last seen playing one of Hannah’s boyfriends in TV show ‘Girls’) – the only problem is that he can’t act. Some of the best British acting talent has been assembled for ‘Their Finest’, even in smaller roles – with Eddie Marsan and Helen McCrory playing sibling agents to Hilliard. Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Irons also appear in small parts – it is gratifying to see that stars will still return home to help out British films. Jack Huston plays the role he always seems to play – a mustachioed injured soldier (see also Boardwalk Empire) – who is Catrin’s struggling artist husband.
The film alternates between a constantly bombarded London (where landladies and friends can be there one day and gone the next) and the much more peaceful seaside location where some of the film’s shooting occurs. Mrs Cole and Buckley become close here, but she is torn between supporting her husband’s art exhibition and her burgeoning feelings for her fellow writer. Of course, the film examines women’s changing roles during the war. The fact that they have jobs, responsibilities and freedoms that they had not experienced before means they will not easily be sent back to the kitchen when war is over. Mrs Cole is patronised and dismissed as a writer, but she grows in confidence throughout the film and gains respect from the men around her. The ending of the film is a disappointment in some ways, but ultimately is trying to return the focus to Catrin Cole and her role as a writer, rather than her reliance on romance or men.
It is a delight to see some of the ‘behind-the-scenes’ magic of how films were made before the age of CGI. The Dunkirk beach scene is a particular highlight. It is also nice to examine a time when cinema had real power – to transport millions of people from bleak reality on the one hand, but also have an important role in providing news and information from the war also. ‘Their Finest’ is directed by a woman – Lone Scherfig – who, despite being Danish, has scrutinised aspects of uniquely British life in ‘An Education’, ‘One Day’ and ‘The Riot Club’. The acting – from Gemma Arterton and Bill Nighy, in particular, is excellent. Nighy still manages to upstage almost every actor in almost every film he’s in. He simultaneously plays the ego and awkwardness of his character tenderly, particularly when he finds an unexpected role as acting teacher to the poor American war hero.
‘Their Finest’ is a lovely film, which is sure to melt the most cynical of hearts. I certainly had something in my eye at more than one point. It is also really important to support a) British cinema and b) female talent behind-the-camera; so go out and see it! You won’t regret it.